A boy is sitting at a desk in a quiet room. He has only a textbook and a notebook in front him. He reads from the textbook and then silently writes something in his notebook. He continues this reading and writing for an hour, proud of the way he is effectively studying for his test the next day.
But, is he truly studying effectively? Benedict Carey, a science writer for The New York Times and the author of a new book entitled How We Learn, tells us that perhaps what we have always thought is productive is actually not!
In an interview about his book, Carey explains:
A lot of people think learning is all discipline. I know I believed it. And it turns out scientists have discovered, through a whole lot of different ways, that it doesn’t work that way. The brain is a foraging instrument. You know, it’s a scavenger, just like humans were for so much of their existence. And once you appreciate that, you’re able to take some pressure off yourself to not worry that you’re doing things right all the time and to have a tactical plan when you study for something.
What does it mean if the brain is a foraging instrument? Well, it actually means that we don’t need to be sitting quietly when we are learning. In fact, our brain learns best when there are lots of things going on at once. In order to understand this concept, let’s first take a look at the geography of the brain itself.
The brain is made up of neurons or nerve cells. Each neuron receives a signal from one side and then “flips” or fires to send the signal to another neuron to which it is linked. These connected neurons make up a neuron network. And, the connections between these neurons (called synapses) thicken with use, causing faster transmission of signals.
In terms of memory, there are three main areas of the brain that are engaged:
Entorhinal cortex: this part of the brain acts as a filter for incoming information.
Hippocampus: this small area in both hemispheres is where memory formation begins.
Neocortex: this area of the brain is where conscious memories are stored once you have decided that those memories should be long-term memories rather than short-term ones.
Aside from the areas of the brain that are specifically designated for memory, all other sections and specialized components of the brain do different work at the same time. The right hemisphere is responsible for artistic and visual-spatial expertise, while the left hemisphere is the intellectual and verbal authority.
Each part of the brain does its own job and together they generate a coherent whole.
So, what does this all have to do with how we learn? Well, the more we understand the brain, the more we recognize that we learn in bits and pieces. What scientists have discovered is that during those long study sessions, you are actually using most of your brainpower to simply stay focused and not to learn new information. “It’s hard to sit there and push yourself for hours,” Mr. Carey says. “You’re spending a lot of effort just staying there, when there are other ways to make the learning more efficient, fun and interesting.”
Because the brain has multiple parts working separately and then putting the pieces together, sometimes a little distraction can actually help us retain knowledge and memories. Below, I have compiled some tips based on this information to help you engage your brain to the maximum level in order to learn the way it was programmed to.
Change your study environment. Instead of sitting at your desk or dining room table for hours, switch from room to room. This helps your brain make new associations and will make it easier to remember the information later. For instance, if you are studying the Civil War and you need to remember that it is from 1861-1865, you might start to associate those numbers with the clock that hangs in the living room. The brain is looking for variation and movement. Therefore, giving it new scenery can help you better recall new information.
Talk about it. One way to signal to the brain that something is important is to talk about it. Have students “play teacher” with one another. Aside from signaling the brain that this is important, teaching will also point out gaps in understanding. Writing flashcards or taking self-made tests can also reinforce learning.
Spacing. Depending on how far away a test is, you should space out your studying. If the test is a week away, instead of studying for three hours the night before, study for one hour a week before, another hour a few days later, and then one more hour the night before. Carey compares this type of studying to watering a lawn. If you water a lawn for three hours once a week or for one hour three times a week, which is going to be greener? The one that is watered more frequently and for shorter intervals.
Sleep. If you are thinking of pulling an all-nighter, think again! Sleep is the “finisher” for memory. Carey says, “The brain is ready to process and categorize and solidify what you’ve been studying. Once you get tired, your brain is saying it’s had enough.” Therefore, don’t skimp on sleep, you need it to remember all the learning you have done that day.
A Last Thought on Forgetting
We often think about forgetting as the enemy of learning, but once again, we are discovering that our assumptions are wrong. In reality, forgetting is what our brains do to trivial or unimportant information so that we can remember the important stuff. Forgetting is actually a friend to learning. As nineteenth century philosopher William James once wrote, “If we remembered everything, we should on most occasions be as ill off as if we remembered nothing.”